An Overview of Flashbulb Memories and Their Causes

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Almost everyone has at least one strong, vivid, emotional memory of a significant and/or shocking event that has occurred in their past, no matter how long ago it happened. This kind of memory is called a flashbulb memory. Flashbulb memories are very intense and vivid memories of emotionally significant or even traumatic events (King, 2017). These memories can occur from being told about a certain tragic event that affects them or a traumatic situation the individual was directly involved in. No matter where they were or how the instance occurred, flashbulb memories contain a large amount of emotional significance to the individual, which, according to Brown and Kulik’s original study of these memories, is part of why individuals can recall them with such specific detail, even years later (1977). When describing flashbulb memories, people tend to include not only the details of the event itself, but their own personal details such as where they were and what was going on in their lives at the time, sometimes including even more specific details like what clothes they were wearing. Some researchers have questioned the accuracy of flashbulb memories, but nonetheless, they still allow individuals to retain specific details they would never retain for a normal, everyday memory.

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When discussing flashbulb memories, most people bring up examples such as the 9/11 attacks, the JFK assassination, or, more recently, the Sandy Hook shooting. People who were directly involved or very nearby to these events when they occurred will have strong emotional memories attached to that day, but since these were such nationally publicized events that were extremely shocking to all American citizens, many people from all over will have flashbulb memories of when the heard the news. Other examples of events that might have created flashbulb memories for large groups of people would be Hurricane Katrina or the Manchester Arena Bombing. While the most commonly used examples of flashbulb memories are typically nationally covered events, they can still occur at a more regional level. The Oklahoma City Bombing and the May 3rd Tornado of 1999 are events that likely created flashbulb memories for Oklahomans, but no one else.

Just like flashbulb memories do not have to be nationally covered events, they also do not have to be regional events either. Sometimes for a person, their strongest flashbulb is something that happened within their family or just to them alone. Events such as an intense car crash or the sudden death of a family member can result in flashbulb memories. For example, I have a distinct and vivid recollection of the day my parents told me and brother they were getting a divorce. It was the summer before my 8th grade year, and I had just gotten back from a summer camp two days before. I was laying in my bed on my phone, wearing my favorite gray shorts and bright neon orange shirt, texting my camp friends about how much I missed them, when my mom came into my room and said I needed to come to the living room to talk. My brother and I sat down on the couch and my parents told us about them splitting. They had never really fought out loud much before, so the whole situation was extremely shocking to me, which is why I believe it created a flashbulb memory for me. While it was not a traumatic event like a death or extreme injury, it created an intense emotional memory that I still remember in vivid detail to this day.

Most examples of flashbulb memories, whether nationally covered events or individual stories, appear to be negative events. However, there are many examples of positive events that can create flashbulb memories. A person’s wedding day, a husband discovering his wife is pregnant, and receiving an admissions letter from your dream college are all perfect examples of positive flashbulb memories. Not only can positive flashbulb memories be created, researchers have also found that they can have higher ratings of confidence and accuracy levels than negative flashbulb memories (Kraha & Boals, 2017). Despite this, negative flashbulb memories are typically more prevalent than positive ones because they yield more intense emotional reactions and are often more initially shocking.

Many researchers debate over the accuracy and retention of flashbulb memories, and, while most agree they are not consistently accurate, some argue that details such as proximity, age, and emotionally significance relative to the person affect the retention of the memory. Highlighted in one specific study, researchers from New York University found that proximity and direct personal involvement did in fact increase accuracy and retention of flashbulb memories of the 9/11 attacks (Sharot, Martorella, Delgado, & Phelps, 2007). They found that individuals who were in Downtown Manhattan during the 9/11 attacks had much more accurate and specific details of that day than individuals who were in Midtown at the same time, about 5 miles away. This connection of proximity to more accurate memories is probably due to the fact that the closer a person is, the more likely they are to be directly involved and/or know someone who was affected by the event. In regards to importance of the event, the more significance and relevance an event has to a person, the more accurate the memories will be because of a stronger emotional attachment. In another study, researchers found that almost 90% of “young” participants created a flashbulb memory for the death of the president of Turkey, while only 72% of “elderly” participants created one for the same event (Tekcan & Peynircioglu, 2002). Age is known to decrease memory, which could explain this discovery. While age, proximity, and importance of the event clearly impact the accuracy and retention of flashbulb memories, it ultimately comes down to the emotional involvement and personal relevance that the individual feels toward that memory.

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